Esports is growing. You, as a reader of esports news content, might already know that, but let's just repeat it one more time for good measure: Esports is growing. A lot.
The sport evolving rapidly as it attracts an increasingly diverse viewership from both casual and non-gamers alike. Prize pools are also climbing into tens of millions of dollars as more serious sponsors and investors flock to the new phenomenon in entertainment. Hell, even famous basketball players are getting in on the esports action.
A lot of developers have tried to utilize the momentum of esports. Valve organizes the most profitable and arguably biggest yearly #esports event with the Dota 2 Internationals (featuring a $20mil prize pool) while Riot Games is facilitating their very own professional, regional leagues in League of Legends.
But even though both Valve and Riot have done a lot to spur esports on in the past, they aren't really pioneering anymore. That honor belongs to good ol' Blizzard (and their owner, Activision), who look to revolutionize competitive gaming in the coming years with titles like Overwatch, Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm.
Blizzard Is Bringing Esports To The Mainstream
It seems like Blizzard is trying to make esports more accessible to the masses. One of the ways the company is doing this is by replacing the untended ecosystem most esports leagues were built on with a structured, traditional system not unlike those we see in the NFL or NBA. For starters, Blizzard looks to achieve this by "franchising" the Overwatch League in the US, creating permanent, city-based teams, regional leagues and playoffs.
That's the idea at least. As reported by Polygon, Blizzard is courting traditional sports team owners instead of existing esports teams like Complexity or Team SoloMid, as these have a hard time financing the $20 million franchise fee Blizzard is asking for the Overwatch League. It looks like Blizzard is going for the bigger fish, though only a few of the traditional sports team owners are rumored to have bought into a franchise so far.
An Unprecedented Esports League
After Polygon and ESPN published the articles above Blizzard Esports’ PR group reached out with a response:
"Our ultimate goal is to create an exciting Overwatch esports ecosystem, the pinnacle of which will be the Overwatch League, that's accessible to a wide audience, sustainable, and rewarding for everyone involved."
The Overwatch League is scheduled to launch in late 2017. But that will, of course, only happen if enough teams have bought a franchise to create a meaningful and healthy league system.
"The league is built upon the best elements of endemic esports programs and traditional sports, and we’re in active discussions with many teams and owners from both worlds because it will take a village to stand up a league with such an unprecedented structure."
- Blizzard Esports
Blizzard is obviously interested in attracting benefactors and investors with deep pockets on board, not only having to rely on the comparatively tiny, esports teams. And for good reason, probably. If you want competitive gaming to evolve into a major sport you'll need these organizations to buy in on the joint business venture.
"The ESPN Of Esports"
Because we have yet to see esports take on the role of a "real sport" in the public eye. Many still define a sport by its requirement for physical or mental fortitude, dismissing esports based on this assumption. I have only one thing to say to those people: Have you heard about penthathlon? Or petangue? Shooting sports? Darts? At least two of these are in the Olympic Games.
Franchising isn't the only way Blizzard is moving things forward in the esports world. In January this year, Activision Blizzard acquired live esports event organizer Major League Gaming for an estimated $46 million. The move was part of a plan to create what Blizzard has called the “ESPN of esports.”
Speaking of ESPN, Blizzard and the big cable television channel have worked together numerous times in the last couple of years. Blizzard's MOBA Heroes of the Storm plays host to national college championships, aptly named Heroes of the Dorm, which were broadcast on the channel in 2015 and 2016.
This year, the championship was broadcast directly on Facebook Live. Another bold move by Blizzard, as it meant circumventing Twitch and YouTube, the two most popular esports platforms by a huge margin.
Hearthstone Production Values Leads The Way
Blizzard has also had huge success with their most popular game, the CCG (collectible card game) Hearthstone. With 70 million players worldwide, the game's esports scene is massive, even though a large part of the playerbase is made up of casual players, who might only enjoy an occasional game of Hearthstone. When they're not playing, though, they're watching.
This was apparent in the recent American Spring Championship Qualifiers, where almost a 100,000 people watched as Muzahidul “Muzzy” Islam won his first gold medal and secured a place in the HTC World Spring Championships in Shanghai in July.
What was special about this tournament was the sheer amount of production value and coordination involved. With three regional qualifiers (European, American and Asian) preceding the world championship, and with players from all over the globe participating through the game's ladder system, the whole event must've taken a lot of work to set up.
This is true for many esports events. But for one who has followed the Hearthstone scene since the game's beta phase, the Spring Championship Qualifiers showed how far things have come with Hearthstone specifically and Blizzard Esport in general. Everything from the studio, transitioning between games, knowledgeable casters and player conditions on scene just worked out flawlessly. It seemed professional and very ambitious.
It's Not Only Blizzard Doing Work
Blizzard seems set on revolutionizing esports, but the company isn't the only party that is treading new ground when it comes to competitive gaming. The top Chinese League of Legends competition, LPL, has announced its plans to introduce franchising in China, and other regional leagues have aired similar thoughts. Which would really make sense, considering how ridiculously popular League of Legends is.
In general, the wind of change is blowing strong in the East, where esports is going to be on the roster in the Asian Games in 2022 as a competitive sport, decided by the Asian branch of the International Olympic Committee. The games will be used as a preliminary testing ground for esports' possible inclusion in the worldwide Olympics. Something like that might very well be what it needs to be considered a "real" sport in the eyes of more conservative sports enthusiasts.
All in all, the future is definitely looking bright for esports. The sports' total revenue increases fiercely year by year, and if big developers like Blizzard keep pushing the boundaries for how and when we enjoy competitive gaming, there's really no telling where we'll end up.
Who knows. We might be watching someone compete for an Olympic Gold medal in Overwatch 3 on national television in some 15 years or so.